The worlds most popular songs will generally only have a few chords. And, they are often quite simple in their chord structure. So, that means you can be too...
Start with the basic chord types and then learn to spice-up your chord technique - you'll make things more compelling that way and you won't suffer from over-complicated songs...
Having said that, it’s also fine to compose music that isn’t simple! There is plenty of room for simple, complex, and everything in between. Learn to look for ways to keep your songs interesting and to increase your options while enriching your harmonic landscape and you'll discover a lot of ways to spice-up your chords.
Let’s take a simple yet common set of chord changes like the VIm–IV–I–V progression, (those Roman Numerals are referred to as "Harmonic Analysis").
In the key of G major, the basic chords are; E minor, C, G, and D. These are very common chord movements found in many songs out there. Nothing too groundbreaking here, but let’s look at five different ways to make them more interesting.
When you see a chord like E7#11b13, do your eyes cross? Have no fear, it’s really not as complicated as it looks (or sounds). The process of how "Extensions" operate is explained in my free lesson "Understanding 7th and Extended Chords."
To do this process, first, you have to identify the root—in this case, E—and then you have to clarify the quality (major, minor, dominant, etc.). In this case "Dominant" ...So far, so good.
Now, this is where most people get lost. The numbers after the quality (#11, b13) indicate the extensions and /or alterations. If altered chords are new to you, watch my 2-part free lesson covering them.
Altered tones are non-diatonic scale tones that can add color, depth, and sophistication to a chords sound. They also open up more opportunities for voice-leading and finding common tones between chords.
For example, if we take the basic open C chord shown in the progression above, and add a D, we would have a Cadd9 chord.
Take the first chord in the progression, the basic Em shape. Start by changing the first chord from Em to Em7 (E–G–B–D). The "7th" isn’t normally considered an extension, but it does create a common tone (D) between the first two chords.
Because both the G and D major chords also contain the common tone, it can smooth out the transition between chord changes while creating layers of harmony.
Spiced-up Progression #1).
If you want to get even more colorful you can do something like the next progression. For example, by making the Em7 into an Em9 (E–G–F#–B), the C into a Cadd9#11 (C–E–G–D–F#), the G into a Gmaj7 (G–B–D–F#), and the D into a Dadd9 (D–F#–A–E)–you can really take the sound of this progression out there.
Spiced-up Progression #2).
You can suspend the tonality of a chord by replacing the 3 with either the 2 or 4. With the "3rd" chord tone gone, the chord no longer has a quality. This creates a gentle, almost ethereal dissonance that can really bring some flavor to your changes. If you are not sure what "Suspended Chords" are all about, watch my free lesson titled, "Understanding Suspended Chords."
For example, by making the D into a Dsus4 (D–G–A), you now have a common tone—G. This is another subtle way to enhance your changes. Although similar to the effect of a chord extension, I think you’ll find that the differences make understanding both approaches more than worthwhile.
Spiced-up Progression #3).
By rearranging the order of notes, (the voicing) you can bring out different sides to the chord (think of them as a chords' personalities). If you need clarification on this approach, watch my 2-part free lessons that cover, "Chord Inversions."
When you have a song that consists of the same three or four chords over and over again, you’ll want to keep it interesting, and this is a great way to do just that.
Let’s try this by making the D chord into a first-inversion shape (otherwise known as a D/F# or D with an F# in the bass). In this context, you can alter the personality of that chord and therefore the entire set of changes. This is a great idea to consider when composing your own songs.
Spiced-up Progression #4).
There are several different places on the neck where you can “voice” the same chord. The transformation in this case is almost mystical because you are playing the same chord tones, but when it’s in a different position on the neck those tones can sound quite different.
For example, by playing Em9 with the root on the 7th fret of the 5th string, you can increase the "spiced-up" factor while breaking yourself out of the open position box shapes.
Spiced-up Progression #5).
You can also substitute a chord for another chord that shares one or more common tones. In music theory, this is referred to as "Diatonic Substitution."
Try this out: Substitute an Am7 (A–C–E–G) for the C chord. You can really create a departure from the repetitive nature of a progression by doing this.
As you can hear, both chords contain the notes C, E, and G. This technique is great when composing because the change is more pronounced as the progression is cycled through.
Spiced-up Progression #6).
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